"Bagdad by the Bay" Top 5 Page for this destination San Francisco by atufft

San Francisco Travel Guide: 9,138 reviews and 19,443 photos

Locals call it "the city"

If Herb Caen, famed Pulitzer Prize winner and devoted SF Chronicle gossip columnist, had envisioned the Iraqi War, no doubt he would have dubbed San Francisco something other than Bagdad by the Bay as the title for his three dot journalism and (1949) book of essays. Caen wit revealed early on that there are more of them than us, going on to coin in his daily column lexicon basic to San Francisco and known throughout the world-- beatnik(1958), hippie(1967). So, Bagdad by the Bay expresson nevertheless describes well the city's colorful multiculturism that mixes oriental and occidental influences within a unique urbane sophistication prompted by its isolation and hilly geography. San Francisco draws upon the best of California, innovating a cultural, social, scientific, and technological environment, unlike any other major city in North America. For nearly 75 years San Francisco reigned alone as the ONLY city on the west coast of North America, and yet the city continues to evolve into the future.

Sometimes regarded as one of America's most densely populated cities, because of its percieved wall to wall housing, in fact San Francisco is much less dense than most parts of New York City or any of a number of other world cities where highrise buildings stud the landscape. Many visitors are actually surprised by the forested look in some parts of the city. Unlike other world cities, high-rise buildings are confined largely to the landfill of the financial district and shopping districts downtown--the part most tourists flock to first--while the majority of residential and small business neighborhoods are confined to 3 or 4 story woodframe buildings stacked next to each other, as they were mostly built on small carefully landscaped lots before the Great Depression of the 1930s. The city blankets over a geographical knot of some 43 hills, having unusually steep hillsides and narrow valleys, steep and winding streets, staircase sidewalks, and quaint and famously ornate and colorfully painted Victorian homes that cling to each other as they compete for a view of downtown, the bay, or the Golden Gate. The city's mystical feel is partly due to its unusual weather pattern of cool and foggy summers that contrasts with mostly sunny and mild winters. San Francisco has the perfect weather for those who like to wear formal urban attire, or bundle in colorful woolens, and yet it only rarely rains, and historically never snows in the city.

The city hosts a surprising and diverse ethnic and lifestyle mix, unevenly distributed among some 91 neightborhoods with 11 districts. Having it's own unique geographical, meteorological, historical, and architectural, origins, every neighborhood builds its separate identity, passing demands down upon the Civic Center politics. In turn, the larger city celebrates the achievements of so many neighborhoods, as none of them is left to ruin before a new generation restores.

Culturally renewed virtually every decade during the past century, the city faces by grassroots inpetus new socio-political issues, and each of these epochs take place in the neighborhoods. During the late 1950's North Beach drew anarchists and "beatniks", some of whom still live there. The legal right to utter obscene language in books and stage comedy, as established by the 1956 Howl case in SF, marked an new period of freedom for the entire USA. During the 1960's, the Haight-Ashbury district, which is within walking distance of Golden Gate Park became a magnet for the young and lyrical focus as a neighborhood of free love and long hair. The Summer of Love in 1967 marked the emergence of flower power, psychadelic drugs, and opposition to the War in Vietnam. Evidence of this period style remains in the neighborhood of Victorian epoch homes, although renewal and gentrification of these houses has reduced the number of long haired hippies still living there.

Origins of San Francisco's Wealth and Tolerance...


In the 1970's through the 80's, gay freedom emerged as a subculture in the Castro District. The restaurants and clubs of this neighborhood at first provided refuge and then celebrated a tolerance of homosexual identity that become stitched into the fabric of the city as a whole with the martyrdom of SF Mayor Moscone and gay SF supervisor Harvey Milk, both gunned down by estranged conservative SF supervisor and former policeman and firefighter, Dan White. Years later, White committed suicide, a metaphoric end for the power of conservative politics within the city. San Francisco has had many defining moments like this in its history.

More often than not, San Francisco does not invent, but it brings together and amplifies trends from around the state. For example, the first city to pass a smoking ban within all public buildings was San Luis Obispo, California (1990), but the snowball effect rather quickly consummed the city in debate, and eventually led to state-wide ban of public and workplaces (1994) and even in bars (1998). Just 10th in the nation in terms of population (smaller than nearby San Jose, in fact), San Francisco remains a leading city in terms of cultural and political influence, which can only be compared with cities like Boston, Santa Fe, Seattle, and New Orleans. Polar opposite in the USA in terms of civic politics includes the great city of Chicago, where gangsterism and top down control is a tradition, particularly with rise of the Daleys, father and son mayors, establishing decades of authoritative rule. Thankfully, San Francisco is not that sort of city.

The origins of tolerance date back to the gold rush vigilante period from the 1850's through the 1870's, and of the anti-Asian sentiments of the early 20th century that eventually caused a broader acceptance of the diversity that created a permanent city. After the earthquake and fire of 1906, the city was able to organize quickly for almost a complete rebuild, and 15 years later held a World's Fair. Today, some 80 languages are represented in the San Francisco School District, and while Chinatown and North Beach were once considered dilapidated and derelict neighborhoods, they remain celebrated as central to the city's identity.

Originally, the wealth of San Francisco emerged from the Gold Rush as the city provided transit, banking, and merchant services to the tent communities of the motherlode. But, with the building of the transcontinental railroad in the 1860's, the city faced a crisis of being on the wrong side of the bay. City leaders rallied and built the world's busiest ferry system, trafficking workers from Oakland to San Francisco. Then, following a multiple of fires and the earthquake in 1906, the city organized itself again and again for a quick rebuilding and improvement of city services and building codes. Each time, city hall could do little from above as considerable bantering between the various powerful business and ethnic enclaves of the city forced renewal.

San Francisco, as a home to Spanish Presidio, has always been strategically important militarily, but after World War II, the city emerged as a favorite for union workers, engineers, and scientists who had pioneered the tech industries before and during WWII at the shipyards, airbases, weapons labs, and universities. Yet, San Francisco was also the original home of the United Nations, and oriented itself toward peace and prosperity.

California became at this point the nationally recognized sunny state with a sporty and sophisticated lifestyle, the dream and envie of teenagers within the midwest and eastcoast of the USA. While, Los Angeles was the magnet those searching fame and good weather, the San Francisco Bay area drained from the more intellectually stagnant regions of the nation. Just as New York was the gateway for immigration from Europe, San Francisco became a distributional center to other parts of the Bay Area.

Sustaining Elements of a Tolerant Society...


Today SFO, not the Port of San Francisco is that transportation hub. San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf and Port Facilities have long since languished and moved elsewhere. Then, in the 1990's, as realestate values boomed on its many hilltop and water view locations, few protested when San Francisco's three military bases (Presidio, Hunter's Point, Treasure Island) were slated for decommissioning. The city has moved on.

As the talent drain continues, San Francisco continues to shuttle through SFO the best science and engineering talent from Asia, Latin America, and Europe to join proud natives already busy building their neighborhoods, in effect swelling the number of people who call some part of California "home". Although the bureaucratic rich California state capitol is two hours east in Sacramento, San Francisco remains the air transport hub, financial and legal powerbase, and cultural capitol of Northern California.

In 2006, conservative pundits in the nation cringed as Nancy Pelosi, congressional representative for most of San Francisco took the gavel, becoming the first elected Madam Speaker of the United States Congress. Those of us who have a liberal bent were elated of course, but we also know that having survived the potboiler of San Francisco politics, Nancy remains the right person for the job. And, she was a very successful speaker, pushing through a record amount of legislation before being displaced by the Tea Party movement in 2010. So, while the various elements of the city bicker over local details, the politics of being tolerant to the needs of the poor, the individual and the environment remain agreed upon.

All this prompted Herb Caen to also quip, "One day if I do go to heaven...
I'll look around and say, 'It ain't bad, but it ain't San Francisco." This city thus celebrates both geographical and cultural diversity, creating a crowded and wacky marketplace of culture, a bargaining place where free speech, equal opportunity, and the pursuit of happiness are so highly prized. Visitors to San Francisco may find themselves alternately confronted on the street by homeless drug using and mentally ill refugees from other parts of the nation, and by the most opulent wealth and circumstances just a doorway away. While the debate about how to handle needs of the poor and disadvantages continues at city hall, these citizens coexist in close proximity and agreement with some of the wealthiest world citizens. San Franciscan's respect the power of the individual for free political and social expression.

With a view toward experiencing the culture of the city, rather than the ordinary tourist traps, I recommend browsing unfamiliar places described in my tips, which include a number of underappreciated neighborhoods and activities within the city. Non-Top 5 VT members living in the city and having excellent insider tips include sean420, LolaSanFrancisco, guell, Smruti, machomikemd, and sunshine9689

Pros and Cons
  • Pros:San Francisco is One of the Most Unique Cultural Cities in the World
  • Cons:Prices are high, forcing hardscrabble on students, artists, and restaurant workers
  • In a nutshell:Besides Visiting Fisherman's Wharf and Nob Hill, Mingle in the Neighborhoods.
  • Last visit to San Francisco: Mar 2006
  • Intro Updated Aug 6, 2012
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Reviews (215)

Comments (38)

  • glabah's Profile Photo
    Sep 11, 2013 at 8:23 PM

    A few nice additions to the San Francisco collection you have.

    • glabah's Profile Photo
      Sep 12, 2013 at 2:44 PM

      I've been busy too, but I have a lot easier internet access than you do!

    • atufft's Profile Photo
      Sep 12, 2013 at 9:16 PM

      Well, that's true. Broadband in my truck is weak. But, I'm also devoted to gathering images and experiences more than writing about them during summer. I've got a lot of material that's months old still to be written about.

  • DavidKeeling's Profile Photo
    Apr 22, 2012 at 10:05 AM

    Very informative, really enjoyed the read.

  • wise23girl's Profile Photo
    Feb 27, 2012 at 12:11 PM

    Very interesting page. I liked SF. If opportunoty comes our way again I will be glad to have read your page and reviews.
    We went on the BART under the bay to visit friends.
    The airport staff were so friendly in fact we changed our plans considerably to fly out from SF.
    ps Ireland banned plastic bags a few years ago... we were there on Day1

  • schurlif's Profile Photo
    Feb 27, 2011 at 11:33 PM

    amazing amount of useful and insightful info, will continue to study all this, so I'll be ready when I get to SF soon.....

  • travelgourmet's Profile Photo
    Jan 17, 2011 at 2:03 AM

    Alan, I may not be able to go to The City with you but virtually I am visiting your tips and thinking of how the wine at Java Beach Cafe would taste. Larry :-)

  • glabah's Profile Photo
    Jan 5, 2011 at 11:22 PM

    Looks like you got a couple more museum visits added, and some new restaurants. I'm glad to hear that somewhere museum food is being done in a quality fashion.

  • SabrinaSummerville's Profile Photo
    Aug 15, 2009 at 2:29 PM

    Very interesting and different restaurant tips.

  • SLLiew's Profile Photo
    Jun 29, 2009 at 8:29 PM

    Amazing page of SF. Bring back fond memories.

  • Jenniflower's Profile Photo
    Jun 16, 2009 at 8:26 AM

    Will be back to see this page too!

  • SteveOSF's Profile Photo
    May 1, 2009 at 5:17 PM

    Nice new "off the beaten path" tips with great coverage of the Golden Gate Park statues.

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